In this earlier post, I described my attempts to browse Amazon as if it was as bricks-and-mortar bookshop, and my frustration at the impossibility of stumbling across surprise books which might make my day. I came to the conclusion that nobody is allowed to stumble across anything on Amazon, because you are so narrowly steered towards what they believe we either want or SHOULD want. The overall online experience is quite depressing.
But there was another side to this story. Last week I went into one of my 3 favourite bookshops in Dublin, to buy a book for Father’s Day. I had no idea whatsoever what I was going to buy, so shopping online was out of the question.
This is extremely unusual for me, but I’m now going to tell you what I bought that day. I normally never mention individual books on this blog because it’s an exercise steeped in disappointment, and fraught with danger, but as I haven’t read any of these yet, I’m going to go out on a disclaimer-laden limb. The reason I’m telling you about them is to illustrate a very important point will become clear in time (I know, the SUSPENSE).
Just inside the door, I found my first victim: Ragdoll by Daniel Cole, a crime procedural which was very buzzy at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Fiction Festival in Harrogate last year. “I’ve heard of that,” says I to myself. “It seemed interesting, but then I forgot about it. Dad might like it. I’m going to buy it.”
Next I moved about three feet to another display, of books currently being read by staff. The first title was Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill, a title which caught my eye because it was the name of a blog I always read. “Now I remember where the name came from!” I said to myself. “It seemed like something I might love, but then I forgot about it. I’m going to buy it.”
On I went into the dark caverns of the bookshop. Another display caught my eye, whereupon it kindly gave my eye back, but not before leading me to Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. “I read a mahoosive article in the New York Times about that back in 2016!” I muttered under my breath. “It seemed fascinating, but then I forgot about it. I want to read it myself, but it’s my brother’s birthday shortly, so I’ll pretend it’s for him*. I’m going to buy it.”
[Is anyone sensing a pattern here? No prizes if you do, I’m afraid. It’s really quite obvious.]
On I went, without even pausing for refreshment. I’m hardy like that. Next I stopped at a discounted books table, where Anne Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering swiped right on my literary Tinder. “Every time I hear the name of that book I feel embarrassed that I never read it,” says I to myself. “This stops now. I’m going to buy it.”
Deeper into the bowels of the bookshop this intrepid blogger went, mopping the non-existent sweat from the tongue in her cheek. And there, towards the end of the A-Z General Fiction section, was Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld. “Everyone was talking about this when it came out!” I whispered to nobody in particular. “I really wanted to read it, but the hardback was offensively large, and it didn’t feel like something I’d like to read on Kindle, so I said I’d wait for the paperback. Then I forgot about it. I’m going to buy it.”
By this time, I had repetitive strain injury in both wrists from transferring this 5-high stack of books from one hand into the other; so I began the journey to the checkout. (I’m sure bookshop staff would have helped me, had I asked. But I didn’t. I’m awkward like that.)
I turned back the way I’d come, but went behind a stack I’d previously passed the other side of. An array of Edna O’Brien’s books lay before me. “There’s The Little Red Chairs,” I mumbled, not just to myself, as I thought, but apparently also to a startled-looking gentleman on my right. “And Edna O’Brien was born not 200 yards away from my family home. Dad told me only last weekend that this book had been recommended to him. It’s fate. I’m going to buy it.”
As I made my last turn around the stacks in the final furlong, a ‘just published’ section snagged my attention (okay, let’s face it, I know it’s not hard, because in a bookshop I’m like a big puppy using its paws to play Whac-a-Mole). I spotted a thriller by Irish author Jo Spain, Beneath The Surface, looking suspiciously like there were only two copies left. “I talked to her only last week on Twitter!” says I to myself. “And she was so lovely I decided to buy her second book afterwards. But then I forgot. I’m going to buy it.”
Just in case you were wondering, there is also a happy ending to this. These seven books didn’t cost half of what you think they’d cost. I was a very happy
Is There Any Point To Your Tedious Shopping Story, Tara?
The moral of the story is: I wouldn’t have bought a single one of these books if I’d been shopping on Amazon. None of these books belonged on an ‘also-bought’ list. Each and every one had been a book I’d thought I’d like to buy at some point, but then forgot about.
It made me realise that I actually forget about half the books I think I’ll buy.
It’s tempting to feel disheartened sometimes as an author, to think that you might have persuaded someone to buy your book, only for them to forget. But authors, never fear. A good bookshop can make readers remember, selling your book by sometimes doing little other than reminding us what we already decided on. Amazon doesn’t do that for me. On Amazon, I might have bought just one book. Not seven.
I say this not to bash Amazon; there is a role for everyone in this game. For instance, I’ve frequently bought books from Amazon which aren’t available anywhere else. Especially old titles, which are long out of the spotlight, or obscure titles, particularly in non-fiction.
But if I want a gift for someone? If I want to be reminded of something I thought I’d like but forgot about? If I want to have a pleasurable experience and come away with titles which make me feel good about myself and the world? Then it’s the bricks and mortar bookshop for me.
* Yeah, bro, this is a test. I do frequently complain that none of my family read my blog.